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The world’s railway network spans over 1.3 million km, and that network is home to no end of fascinating trains.
Below, we provide a run-down of eight of the most interesting — encompassing everything from the speediest to the most luxurious.
1. The Shanghai Maglev: The World’s Fastest Train
The Shanghai Maglev, which connects Shanghai’s Pudong airport with Longyang Road station in the city center, was launched in 2003. Built by the Chinese government and a German Consortium for a reported cost of $1.4 billion, the train travels at a maximum commercial speed of 460 kph, or 286 mph, which means it completes its 30 km journey in a mere seven and a half minutes.
Being the world’s fastest train is not Shanghai Maglev’s only unique attribute. It is also the only train in the world to operate via magnetic levitation, providing its passengers with a smooth and frictionless ride.
High-speed rail is one of China’s top priorities. Several new maglev networks are under construction and the nation recently unveiled a Maglev bullet train that is designed to reach speeds of up to 600 kph or 373 mph.
2. The World’s First Electric Train
Ernst Werner von Siemens presented the world’s first electric train on May 31, 1879, at the Berlin Industrial Exposition. With three carriages in tow, each one holding six passengers, the train completed a 300-meter-long circular track through the exhibition’s grounds, much to the excitement of exhibition attendees.
The electric train continued to delight the locals and, within four months, it had carried more than 86,000 passengers.
“Our electric railway is quite a spectacle here. It is running even better than expected,” Siemens said in a letter to his brother Carl, penned in June 1879.
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Siemens had paved the way for the next 140 years of electrification in rail transportation, be it trams, subways, or high-speed trains.
3. The Orient Express: The World’s Most Infamous Train
Perhaps best known for providing the setting for Agatha Christie’s iconic murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, this train oozes decadence and sophistication.
But, of course, it wasn’t all murder and mystery.
Developed by Belgian railway entrepreneur George Nagelmackers, the train made its maiden voyage in October 1883, traveling from Paris, Gare de l’Est, to Giurgiu, Romania (via Munich and Vienna), with 48 passengers on board.
At the time, globetrotting remained a relatively new concept and so the Orient Express served to completely redefine long-distance travel. It was also quite unlike any train Europe had ever seen, delighting its enormously wealthy passengers with silk bedding, exquisite dishes of oysters and caviar, champagne receptions, and plushly decorated lounge cars.
4. Trans-Siberian Railway: The World’s Longest Railroad
Tsar Alexander III announced the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a network of railways connecting Moscow to the Russian Far East, back in March 1891. It is the longest railway in the world at 9,288.2 km, and the largest and most expensive project of its time, taking a staggering 25 years to complete.
The full route lasts seven days, and that’s only if traveled directly and without any stops, and passes through eight different time zones. It crosses 16 large rivers, mountain ranges, 3,901 bridges, and the world’s biggest freshwater lake.
Today, passengers can travel the route in either direction and there are several options to extend tours with various stops.
By far the most high-end option is the Golden Eagle, it provides fully-escorted private rail tours in a luxury environment. Passengers can enroll for Russian language lessons, dance to a live pianist, or spend the night in the 24-hour bar. Prices for a 15-day tour start at a hefty $17,695 per person.
5. The Jacobite Steam Train: The Harry Potter Train
A ride on Scotland’s Jacobite Express is a must-do for any Harry Potter fans. This 84-mile round trip crosses the 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct, a site popularized by the Harry Potter films and now often referred to as the “Harry Potter bridge.”
For passengers less charmed by the wizarding world, this route through the Scottish Highlands is indisputably beautiful, passing through the deepest freshwater loch in Britain, the shortest river in Britain, and the deepest seawater loch in Europe, Loch Nevis. The steam train itself is rather charming, and passengers can enjoy a quintessentially English cream tea while on board.
6. Maharajas’ Express: The Most Expensive Train in the World
For seven consecutive years, between 2012 to 2018, the Maharajas’ Express won the title of “World’s Leading Luxury Train” — and it’s not hard to see why.
India’s maharajas (a title reserved for a “great ruler” or “great king”) lived a life that most people have only dreamed of, and that’s exactly the kind of experience passengers are awarded when they board the Maharajas’ Express.
The 23-carriage train travels on four different circuits, covering twelve destinations across the regions of North-West and Central India. Passengers can choose to stay in deluxe cabins, junior suite cabins, suites, and the iconic presidential suite. The latter is aptly named Navratana, which means nine precious gems. It boasts a living room, two bedrooms, a washroom, and a 24-hour personal valet.
Unsurprisingly, a stay on the Maharajas’ Express doesn’t come cheap. The lowest rate per person, per day, is $800.
7. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway: The World’s Highest Railroad
Not only did the establishment of the Qinghai-Tibet railway spell the end of Tibet’s history without a railway, but it also set the record for the world’s highest railroad.
The development of the route, which connects Xining, Qinghai Province, to Lhasa, Tibet, began in the 1950s but it didn’t open until 1984.
Construction proved enormously challenging. As much as 960 km of the route sits at 4,000 meters above sea level, which meant designers and engineers had to contend with a fragile ecosystem, lacking oxygen, and permafrost throughout the process.
The route spans 1,956 km and the highest point, the Tangula Mountain Pass, reaches an altitude of 5,072 meters above sea level. No surprise it’s known in China as “the road to the sky.”
Today, millions of tourists visit the Qinghai-Tibet Railway every year to marvel at this feat of engineering and the views of breathtaking scenery it provides.
8. The Schienenzeppelin: The Train Powered by an Airplane Engine
In 1931, Franz Kruckenberg, engineer and pioneer of high-speed railway systems, decided it might be a good idea to mix trains with planes.
The Schienenzeppelin, which was built near Hanover in Germany, measured about 15 m long, could carry up to 40 passengers, and bore a striking resemblance to a Zeppelin airship. Most notably, its railcar consisted of two conjoined BMW petrol aircraft engines, which powered a four-blade propeller.
The train reached a speed of 225 kph during testing, or 140 mph, double the speed of express trains at the time, and this remained an unbroken record for some 23 years.
Unfortunately, Kruckenberg’s train never made it past the prototype stage since its propeller was deemed too dangerous for passengers. Further, the fixed position of the propeller made it impossible to reverse, pull other coaches, or gather enough momentum to ascend hills.
During World War II, the train was dismantled so parts could be acquired for building airplanes.
Image Credit: cyo bo / Shutterstock.com